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Academy Award-winning Producer
After walking - okay, running - down Spring Garden Road, I make it to DHX Media's headquarters right on time. A buzzer sounds, signaling the building door has been unlocked. My footsteps echo up the stairs and into the loft. (I’m sure the relentless clearing of my throat did too.) An assistant greets me, and I am directed into a small boardroom. Michael Donovan seldom gives interviews, so I can’t help but feel somewhat like an imposter.
Before meeting Michael, two different versions of him existed in my mind: the inspired creator and the straight-laced executive. He clarified this contradiction soon after shaking my hand.
“It’s something like this: there are those who are creative, with that comes expansiveness, a place of no boundaries. That’s the key, or part of the key. If you are involved in, say, making a painting, you probably want to be mostly in that place," Michael articulates, seated across from me at the glass-top conference table.
Among his credits is co-writing the screenplay for Shake Hands with the Devil, the acclaimed 2007 war-drama based on Roméo Dellaire's autobiographical account of his experience in Rwanda.
"But if you are involved in something that involves millions of dollars and people’s jobs and workers showing up on time, you have to have boundaries and structures. Many, many creatives find that limiting, and understandably." DHX Media's revenue hit USD $335 million under Michael's leadership as CEO.
"If you are just good at budgets, you’re probably not good at the expansive part, and if you’re really good at the creative part, you’re probably not good at the budgets part. Some people seem to have a balance between the two. I seem to be one of those.”
Michael briefly worked as a lawyer with Dalhousie Legal Aid Service. I wrongly assumed that monotony is what propelled him into the film industry. “The world of law was genuinely not monotonous,” he explains. “I found it interesting and demanding. I was in court every second day.” With a modest resoluteness, he concedes, “At the same time, I am happy to have done this other thing. There are many good lawyers out there, and it’s probably best that I’m not one.”
That ‘other thing’ to which he refers began with Salter Street Films: the production company he co-founded with his brother, Paul, in the early 1980s.
“The first ambition was probably to see if we could produce world-successful films here in Halifax. My brother and I decided to focus on B-movies which don’t really exist now but existed then. There was a little more creativity in them we thought.”
B-movies are low-budget films, often genre-specific. In the past, they would be played before a main feature at the cinema to attract ticket buyers. Salter Street’s early films – South Pacific 1942, Self Defence, and Def-Con 4 – largely feature untapped east coast talent, a concept that still feels novel to this day.
“The movie that had the biggest impact on me personally, besides Shake Hands with the Devil definitely, was a relatively obscure B-movie that we made a number of years ago called Life with Billy. My brother directed it. People I really got along with well wrote the script. The movie was hard to finance and put together; I thought it was very ambitious, at least for me at the time.”
The drama, released in 1993, is a fictionalised account of the real-life story of Jane Hurshman, a Nova Scotia woman who was acquitted of murdering her abusive husband. The film won three Gemini Awards, including Best Direction.
The Canadian film industry has never been front-and-center on the global stage which is especially true of the early 1980s. “Making films in places like Halifax, or even in Canada, was inconceivable, so that was kind of fun to sort of be doing something inconceivable.”
“The second ambition was, well, maybe the medium of film can be used for changing the world, positive outcomes.”
One of the most affecting films co-produced by Michael Donovan is Bowling for Columbine. It was released in 2002 and earned him the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It focuses on gun violence in America.
At the time of the Columbine high school massacre, it was the fourth-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. It has since dropped to 15th.
“It’s very, very disappointing, I have to admit. You would think film would change that but changing an amendment of the U.S. Constitution is difficult. Abraham Lincoln almost didn’t get through anti-slavery; it was down to the last vote. That was 1865, not so long ago. I had hoped there would be more change to the second amendment, so that is quite disappointing." His tone lifts. "But the fact that there are high school students marching is a very good indicator for the future, and things that you think will never change do," Michael says, in reference to renewed activism following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida.
As for a sequel to Bowling for Columbine, “I don’t know. That is an interesting idea. Maybe.”
Bringing to life poignant stories did elicit a rerouting of purpose for Mr. Donovan.
“Slowly but surely, I stopped believing in the medium of film changing the world because it didn’t seem to do it in any way. It got better or worse irrespective of the films. It reduced my ambition to making films or TV shows that are going to be worthy and have audiences and be interesting.”
Well, that ambition seems to have been achieved. This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which Michael has been involved in since its inception as a Salter Street production, is in its 26th season on CBC. And DHX Media, which Michael co-founded in 2006, has become the world's largest independent owner of children’s content - with brands such as Peanuts, Teletubbies, Inspector Gadget and Degrassi in its library - and is widely recognized as one of the world's leading producers of digital content.
"My attitude is, you have to take risks. And in fact, the biggest risk is to not risk. If you risk, you reduce your risks. If you don’t risk, you increase your risks, ironically. Safety doesn’t work out."
It is unclear what is next for Michael Donovan, but one thing is certain: he has left an indelible mark on the Canadian media industry, something myself and all Nova Scotians can be inspired by.
Interview Recorded: 2018 | Updated: 2022
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